Study the main themes in Jesus' parables and see why he used them as the primary vehicle for his message.
Jon: Jesus of Nazareth was a master teacher, and some of his most well-known teachings are told in short stories called parables.
Tim: Yeah, like: “The Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who was looking for pearls; and when he found the ultimate pearl, he sold everything so that he could buy it”1.
Jon: Must have been some pretty amazing pearl!
Tim: Or, “The Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that a farmer planted in his garden. It grew and became a huge tree, and birds came to perch in its branches”2.
Jon: And that’s a beautiful image, but what does it mean?
Tim: Exactly. Jesus didn’t tell parables to make everything clear. Rather, he wanted to provoke the imagination and invite people to see what God is doing in the world from a new perspective.
Jon: So let’s talk about how to read the parables of Jesus.
Jon: Now there’s many great teachers that, throughout history, have used stories to teach students about morality, religion, philosophy.
Tim: But Jesus didn’t use his parables to teach abstract religious or moral ideals. He said that his parables were about himself and his mission3.
Jon: His mission, which was to announce that the Kingdom of God was arriving on earth as it is in heaven4.
Tim: Right. So in Jesus’ day, the Israelites were ruled by the Roman empire. But their Scriptures promised that, one day, their God would come to rule his people as king5. And So many Israelites wanted to revolt against Rome and fight for their freedom.
Jon: And this is what some people thought of as the Kingdom of God.
Jon: And that didn’t fit people’s expectations.
Tim: Right. And so Jesus used some parables to help people imagine that his small movement was the arrival of God’s Kingdom8.
Jon: Oh yeah, like the parable that the Kingdom of God is yeast hidden in a lump of dough9. And you might not see its influence, but it’s going to change everything.
Tim: Jesus also told parables about the upside-down values of God’s Kingdom, about how the least important people in the world are actually the most important people to God, especially those who are poor and of low status.
Jon: Yeah, like the parable about the business owner who hired workers throughout the day––in the morning, later in the day, and even towards the end of the day. And when it was time to pay everyone, he paid them all the same wage10.
Tim: Right. Jesus is showing how money and status are irrelevant to God, who offers his generous mercy to everybody.
Jon: Now, not all of the parables have happy endings. Some are really intense.
Tim: Yes. Jesus stood in the tradition of Israel’s prophets, who also told parables to criticize Israel’s leaders because they mistook their kingdom for God’s11. So Jesus warned the leaders of his day: if they don’t accept his offer of God’s Kingdom, they’re headed for destruction.
Jon: Yeah, like the parable of the landowner who built a wonderful vineyard. And he expects it to produce fruit12.
Tim: Yes. Jesus gets this parable from the prophet Isaiah, but then he adapts it.
Jon: Right, and so the landowner appoints managers to take care of this vineyard, and at harvest, he sends servants to collect the fruit. But those managers kill the servants.
Tim: And so the landower sends his own son to confront the managers, and they kill him too. And so Jesus asks the people around him: “What do you all think this landowner should do?”
Jon: Oh, he’s gonna punish those managers and hire new ones.
Tim: Jesus knew that if Israel kept on their current path, they would be destroyed by Rome. And so in parables like this, he’s forcing people to make a decision about his offer of God’s Kingdom. Are people going to reject him, ignore him, or trust and follow him?
Jon: Now if this message is so important, why cloak it in parables? Why not be more clear?
Tim: Well, through riddles and parables, Jesus could make really bold claims that revealed truth to people who were open-minded.
Jon: For those who have ears to hear, they can ponder it and go deeper13.
Tim: But the parables would also conceal his message from those who were against him, so that he could buy more time.
Jon: Buy time for what?
Tim: Well, Jesus was preparing his closest followers for the greatest surprise yet. Jesus claimed that Israel’s God was coming to rule over his people not through coercion or violent force but through self-giving love, as he was going to die for their sins14.
Jon: But his death wasn’t the end.
Tim: Right. He said that his death would be like a tiny seed buried in the ground, but then it would grow and produce a crop with many seeds15.
Jon: So these parables, they explain who Jesus was and what he was up to.
Tim: And the Gospel authors have preserved these parables, so that now every generation of Jesus’ followers can read and ponder them.
Jon: And imagine how God’s Kingdom is still at work even today.
Tim: Right. These ancient parables are still full of new surprises and challenges. They’re like a storehouse packed with treasures––some that are new, some that are old––and it’s all just waiting to be discovered16.